Born Alone, Die Alone: What Does This Mean?

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Mon Oct 24 18:06:28 UTC 2011

[Begin comment by Fred Shapiro]
I apologize for my cluelessness, but there is a quote by Steven Jobs
that is getting some publicity and that makes no sense to me.  He
said, "You're born alone, you're going to die alone."  What does this
mean?  Many people die alone, but many do not, and it is not clear to
me that anyone is born alone.  Some babies are given birth by mothers
in secretive circumstances and the mother dies in childbirth, but this
is unusual and the baby may quickly die when this happens.
[End comment by Fred Shapiro]

Here is one guess for the meaning Jobs was trying to communicate:

The subjective experience of dying is solitary: Jobs may have thought
this proposition was true even if one was surrounded by loving
individuals. Jobs expressed ambivalence and uncertainty about the
possible existence of an "afterlife". He may have thought that if an
afterlife existed then one would enter it alone.

The subjective experience of birth is solitary: It is not clear how
well developed the neural system is at birth. If it is well developed
enough that it is possible to speak of a subjective experience then
emerging through the birth canal would presumably be a solitary

Here are some quickly obtained unverified GB matches:

1847, The journey of life by Catherine Sinclair
[Begin excerpt]
Since, then, we are not only born alone, but must die alone, why
should so much of our intermediate time be spent in avoiding to remain
alone with our own thoughts?
[End excerpt]

1861, Eighty sketches of sermons by Francis Close
[Begin excerpt]
We are born alone, must die alone, and must "every one of us give an
account of himself to God." (Rom. xiv. 12.)
[End excerpt]

There is a GB match in 1853 that really seems to be from 1862, and
some other possible matches in the 1860s. I didn't look in any other

The religious quotations seem to be connected to the belief that the
moral evaluation of a life will be performed for each individual human

In recent times a script writer for the television series Mad Men used
the expression according to WikiQuote

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes [1.1]

Don Draper: The reason you haven't felt it is because it doesn't
exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.
You're born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch
of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never
forget. I'm living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one.

The American Dialect Society -

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